“Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland,” is exactly what it says on the tin. The National Galleries of Scotland has lent the de Young Museum works by famous artists, from the greatest humanist painters of the Renaissance to the cigarette-toting, café-lingering Cubists. The result? A collection of pretty pictures, but one that never tries to be more than that.
The word “masterpiece” is not used lightly here. The exhibition begins with an absolutely sumptuous Botticelli, featuring his signature large-boned figures whose shadows are demarcated by smoky tones, as if emulsified into their flesh. I found myself eating up each curve of the Virgin’s intricate halo like candy, but forced my feet from their stasis to find transfiguring moments anon.
However, once I moved past The Virgin Adoring the Sleeping Christchild I found that the rest of the exhibit falls absolutely flat. But it was not that this first painting is the only one worth looking at—as if this exhibition were simply a one-hit wonder. As interesting and wonderfully unique each painting is in its own right, it seems to all have fallen out of the back of a truck. Perhaps it was my art historian’s instinct to organize the images in some sort of scheme or in themes, but I was left confused and in a daze.
Because the artworks were on loan from Scotland, I was most excited to learn more about Scottish art. However, I was left most disappointed in the room full of Scottish masterpieces, although these pieces were the largest in the entire exhibit. The portraits stood tall, beatified by their intricate frames and statuesque figures, spanning from floor to ceiling, almost as if they could cast a shadow that engulfs us.
The raw emotion that took me, fight-or-flight signals firing in face of these foreign giants, was made impotent. I now knew what a Scottish painting looked like, but what defined Scottish art? How did it fit into the scheme of the more “canonical” traditions of the time, the French and the British? Beyond identifying the kilt as part of the portrait’s regalia, I did not leave the exhibition having experienced the Scottish. I was not transported to any of the worlds depicted in the paintings. I could only view it at a distance—a mysterious window into another world about which I knew little and, in my ignorance, I retreated.
I understand that a sample of such “encyclopedic” museums as the National Galleries of Scotland would be quite diverse, but I was shocked at how little signposting there was to their overall scheme. There was a vague gesture at a sort of chronology. The architectural restraints seemed more like hindrances and obstacles than frameworks around which the exhibition could be organized. One room covered a century, while another covered the same century and two more while it was at it. If anything, canvases seemed to be grouped by being the same size—why else isolate The Skating Minister, a tiny Henry Raeburn from this room of towering Scottish pieces? While this mode of arrangement is perfect for Tupperware, it’s iffy for works of art.
The exhibition spoke only of individual pieces. The audio tour commented upon symbols and related them to all-too-general themes of life and death. The wall text was bogged down by paragraphs of unnecessary biography—in the case of John Singer Sargent’s stunning Lady Agnew of Lochnaw, the wall text was merely of the work’s provenance and a few ineffectual facts about the subject. This exhibit did not even scratch the surface of art history, instead oscillating between perfunctory visual analysis and dry, historical fact.
Botticelli to Braque rests on its laurels. It is art as narcotic, as Huxleyan soma. It amasses beautiful objects and forgets to curate them, privileging pure aesthetic over a cultivation of knowledge, awareness, or empathy. All around me, San Franciscan startup yuppies and soon-to-retire investment moguls stare vacantly at each canvas. That’s pretty, they say. I like that one. For this exhibition, it’s all they can say.
Museums play an incredibly important role in shaping its patrons’ awareness of the world, of civilizations past and present, far and near. Museums create conversations that transcend boundaries of time and space. To simply have museumgoers look at the paintings and consider it a job well done is not to create conversation. In privileging the viewer, the museum encourages a sort of voyeurism or colonization, rather than equivalent exchange.
As much as we think of “the sublime” as ubiquitous, a sense of aesthetics is very much conditional. It is as contingent on one’s unique point as is a constellation in the expanding night sky of space-time. The de Young, in organizing the exhibit, posits its own uniquely white, American, affluent aesthetic. Yet, it ignores its bias, instead purporting with its lack of real cultural and art historical information the universality of aesthetics. It erases cultural meaning, absorbing the objects into its own self-centric orbit by focusing on mere “prettiness.” And what has this prettiness brought us? Native American headdresses at Coachella and “baby hairs” on NYFW runway models. Objects of the most ritualistic importance in the Yoruba tribe relegated to a tiny side room of the Musee du quai Branly for not having enough “wow factor”—whatever that means. And to that I say Botticelli to Blech.
The prioritizing of spectacle has plagued the de Young’s exhibitions for quite some time now. Last summer’s “Modernism from the National Gallery of Art,” for example, suffered from similarly lazy, haphazard curating, although the collection itself was quite stunning. Its recent Keith Haring show, subtitled “The Political Line,” purported a more focused through-line. However, it was not nearly political enough, lacking information on the role of Haring as an activist and the social conditions to which he was responding.
With $28 tickets for blockbuster exhibitions, it doesn’t seem like the de Young is planning on challenging its complacency any time soon. It’s time for a reality check. Of all places, San Francisco needs it.
“Botticelli to Braque: Masterpieces from the National Galleries of Scotland” will be at the de Young Museum until May 31st.